April 29, 2017
A Google search for “disruptive innovation” led me to a Wikipedia article, a crucial first stop on any path towards attaining a cursory glimpse of a topic weighing on one’s mind. I had to laugh after I noticed that Wikipedia itself was as an example. That’s about as meta as it gets. Then I realized that using Wikipedia as a case study to demonstrate the concept of disruptive innovation is actually somewhat ideal. Wikipedia is a non-profit organization committed to providing free information to anyone anywhere. Their business model is pretty much…just about being free:
Wikipedia is one of the most visited websites in the world.
Commerce is fine. Advertising is not evil. But it doesn’t belong here. Not in Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind. It is a place we can all go to think, to learn, to share our knowledge with others.
When I founded Wikipedia, I could have made it into a for-profit company with advertising banners, but I decided to do something different. We’ve worked hard over the years to keep it lean and tight. We fulfill our mission efficiently.
Free stuff is free
I’m going to go out on a limb here and declare that most people prefer free things. As such, Wikipedia has now completely displaced expensive traditional encyclopedia sets like Encyclopædia Britannica that were marketed towards home users. At over $1000 for a full set, Encyclopædia Britannica could not keep up with the massive amounts of data churned out on a daily basis and broadcast via Wikipedia, and in 2012, the company ceased its print production entirely. And while Encyclopædia Britannica still retains its own online presence, its reputation has been utterly surpassed by Wikipedia, which allows free access to over five million constantly updated articles. Jimmy Wales’s vision for the future is clear:
My dream really is that there will exist a free encyclopedia for every single person on the planet, in their own language.
Unfortunately, many countries around the world do not share in Wales’s utopian encyclopedic dream; Wikipedia has been blocked by numerous nations over the years. Just today, for example, the site has gone completely dark in Turkey. Other countries, such as China, prohibited Wikipedia in the past, but now allow English-only content.
So if their business model is based on being free and accessible, how does Wikipedia actually make money? Donations, of course. But then again, you knew that already because, just like PBS, sometimes Wikipedia makes it very clear how much your support helps:
When initially designing Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales explains that he was greatly inspired by the Open Source Movement. In an interview with Mixergy, Wales says, “I was looking at the growth of the free software movement and I was seeing how communities of programmers were coming together online to create software.” Ironically, a major caveat for marketing the Wikipedia model lies in the very essence of its open source model. Since anyone can edit content within the site, its credibility can be questionable.
Falling into a rabbit hole of rabbit holes
I did my undergraduate at the University of Minnesota in history. That being said, it’s not hard to imagine that I had to write a LOT of research papers. And sadly, as much as I adore libraries, the speed of finding sources via a Wikipedia article beat actually trekking to a library to conduct exhaustive research every time. After locating additional sources, of course I’d head over to the library to acquire the exact titles, but perusing Wiki articles saved me so much time and energy. Also, during the process of researching, it’s easy to spiral out into many different avenues of connecting thoughts and tangents. Wikipedia makes this so much easier, just as long as you’re aware of the potential pitfalls in using an open source encyclopedia as a reference. In a way, using Wikipedia helped to strengthen my critical thinking skills even more, as I had to be absolutely diligent about identifying bias and inaccuracies. The rabbit hole phenomenon is an excellent form of brainstorming and Wikipedia’s open source model allows a community to be formed around the sharing of ideas. And rest assured, there is a whole cohort of academics who love nothing more than to edit and revise Wiki articles.
(Let me just make it clear that I only ever once used an actual Wikipedia article as a source. And that was for a class on online media. I swear.)
And climbing back out again
Wikipedia as a disruptive innovator helped to shake up academia and make information accessible to anyone, but as a source in and of itself is unacceptable for academic writing. Interestingly enough, this is where Encyclopædia Britannica has an edge: its online database is permitted as a credible academic source. But, of course, you’re just going to go to Wiki anyway and read a summary, then dig into the sources and find out what you need to know to get started. Wikipedia’s competitive edge is just that: it provides a launchpad for ideas and research, and most important of all, it’s absolutely free. For anyone. Anywhere. Provided your government doesn’t shut you out. The open source model is the future for software, I believe, or at least I hope it will be. Making information free and accessible for everyone is gold. Wikipedia’s marketing model emphasizing the continued sharing of ideas and building of communities around knowledge FOR FREE is enough to, ironically, garner enough support through donation to keep it afloat for many years to come.